Grandma calls to us from the screened porch – “Dinnertime! Come inside and dry off. Help me set the table!”
We grudgingly climb the ladder at the end of the pier and grab our towels to dry off. “I’ll race you!” my cousin shouts and takes off running. He’s always faster, so I don’t even really try.
I make my way up the hill to the house and push my way through the screened door on the porch. It bangs shut loudly behind me, screeching on its spring as it does.
I approach the front door, dreading the blast of cold air that always hits me when I open it. It’s hot and humid outside, but I know the window air conditioner in the dining room window is going to be a vicious assault when I step in with a dripping bathing suit and wet hair. Despite the bitter cold blast, there’s the scent of something inviting wafting from the kitchen. It’s enough to make the trek through the frigid living room worthwhile. I make my way to the back of the house to change, all the while anticipating the savory delights that await me in the kitchen.
I remember this like it was yesterday – summer dinners at my grandparents’ house. Simple, usually vegetable-based plates of food full of flavor, texture and color. There was almost always cornbread on the side. Savory, salty cornbread that my granddaddy would dunk in a big glass of real cultured buttermilk at the end of the meal (I preferred mine in sweet milk).
I distinctly recall being asked to go out to the garden as Grandma finished preparing dinner to pick the fresh vegetable portion of our meal. Usually a mixture of ripe red tomatoes, plump green jalapenos and long thin green onions. I’d bring in my haul and watch Grandma as she rinsed the dirt off the freshly picked produce, carefully slicing them into serving-sized portions and placing them on a serving plate. I learned to appreciate raw jalapeno peppers at a young age – never really knowing until I bit into the crisp green flesh whether it was going to be blisteringly hot or just mildly warm. Those fresh, sun-warmed and vine-ripened tomatoes were always a perfect accompaniment to whatever we might be having for dinner that night.
Sometimes it was a simple bowl of navy beans. Sometimes it was butter beans and creamed corn. Sometimes there was fried okra, although that usually came alongside some form of fish that we’d pulled out of the lake earlier that day and then dredged in cornmeal and deep-fried. Whatever it was, most of it usually came straight from the garden in the “back forty” or from the lake out front. Truly local food, simple and hearty. And the ritual of sitting down together to our family blessing and then breaking bread together gave a measure of comfort and stability.
Unfortunately, it’s too early to have vegetables straight from my garden right now. I do have some collards, cabbage and broccoli that I wintered over in a cold-frame that are showing signs of health and vitality, but they’re just not quite ready for consumption. What I did have was some organic local green beans and black-eyed peas, along with some mushrooms and a huge leek in my produce box last week.
I baked up a pone of cornbread, and simply boiled the black-eyed peas in some water until they were tender. I decided to do a fresh stove-top take on everybody’s holiday favorite (or not), green bean casserole, with the green beans, mushrooms and leek. In place of the canned fried onions that typically top the gloppy holiday side, I pan fried some thinly sliced leeks until they were brown and crispy and sprinkled them over the top for some extra texture.
Even if you’re not a fan of the traditional canned-soup casserole (I have to admit it’s a guilty pleasure of mine), I would suggest trying this version. It’s much lighter, and the crispy leeks are so flavorful. Each of the ingredients comes through, while at the same time blending into a harmonious whole.
I sliced up a jalapeno to munch alongside the black-eyed peas, and it rushed me right back to those summers in the country. If I’d had some buttermilk, I might have dunked my cornbread in it, just for the sake of nostalgia.
We enjoyed this simple meal outside in the early spring warmth – robins searching for worms in the yard, cherry blossoms swirling on the breeze, the call of nesting ducks making its way through the trees from the pond at the back of our property – making our own food memories with our own children. Sitting down together to the ritual of the family dinner, partaking of nourishing food and giving thanks for our blessings.
For a printable recipe of the Green Beans with Mushrooms and Leeks, click here.